#14 in my ranking of Martin Scorsese’s films.
There’s such a natural set of connections between Scorsese’s late-90s Bringing Out the Dead, set in the early 90s, and Taxi Driver that it feels like a spiritual sequel. Written by Paul Schrader, set in New York City at night with a main character who drives people around in a dirty, run down environment, Bringing Out the Dead is ultimately the more hopeful variation on the story that made Schrader and Scorsese famous in the 70s.
Nicholas Cage already had a well-worn reputation as an actor with unexpected and manic energy coming out of him, having won his Oscar for his drunken, suicidal performance in Leaving Las Vegas along with memorable performances in movies like Coppola’s Peggy Sue Got Married and Bay’s The Rock. It’s always a gamble hiring him because he can go off on his own to just be crazy the entire time, but with a strong actor’s director, like Scorsese, that energy can be channeled in the right direction. Scorsese really does know what to do with Cage. He would never have cast him as Newland Archer in The Age of Innocence because he wouldn’t have been right, but he cast him rather perfectly here as Frank, the paramedic haunted by ghosts. He’s exhausted most of the time, but when he needs to break out from that, the weird energy that Cage taps into so easily fits with the character of Frank so well. Cage’s performance is controlled, not let loose.
Paramedics, Frank explains in voiceover, are mostly caretakers to those they care for directly but also to the loved ones that surround the sick as they lay on the floor, dying. He also feels that the ghosts of the people he’s helping are always just out of view, waiting for their outcome, whether to live or die. He’s haunted by one of these, Rose, a young drug addict he failed to save some months before. He sees her face on people he passes on the street while he rides in his ambulance to whatever next call will need him. He hasn’t saved anyone in months, and Rose represents his inability to forgive himself for that.
The movie is broken up into three nights over a long weekend with a full moon rising, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Each night sees Frank partnering with a different paramedic as they roam the streets looking for people to help, trouble to get into, and ways to numb themselves from the harsh work. The first night is spent with John Goodman’s Larry, Frank’s regular partner. This is our introduction to the world, to Frank’s central conflict, and to the work. The main event that takes place is the call to the home of an elderly man surrounded by his family, in particular his daughter Mary, played by Patricia Arquette. Frank is able to stabilize the man, but he’s precariously clinging to life. When they get him to the emergency room, he requires constant attention and codes over a dozen times over two days, requiring shocks to keep his heart beating.
The second night, Frank is paired with Ving Rhames’ Marcus, a religious black man who is infatuated with their dispatch that night (voiced by Queen Latifah). Frank was able to almost help one person the night before, and this night, he falters. He does help one heroin overdose in the film’s funniest single scene, but after that there’s a drug deal of a new narcotic called Red Death gone bad that Frank can’t keep alive all the way back to the hospital, and then a curious little scene. Marcus and Frank show up in a bad part of town (well worse than the rest), go up a flight of stairs, and discover a young Hispanic couple. The man called for help, and the woman is obviously in labor. However, the man insists that they are both virgins. Frank delivers twins, the oldest of whom Marcus holds with a beaming smile, but the second goes to Frank, and it’s dying. He rushes it to the hospital, giving it CPR the whole way, and the doctors do what they can before calling the poor baby’s death. Despondent, Frank starts drinking along with Marcus who crashes the ambulance, and Frank marches off, saying he quits.
Frank really can’t quit, though. There’s no real external pressure keeping him there, but when he shows up at his captain’s desk every night and demands to be fired for showing up late, it shows that he wants out but he needs to stay in. He has his ghosts to exorcise.
The third night is with Frank’s old partner, the perfectly cast Tom Sizemore as Tom, a dangerous borderline lunatic who’s eager for a fight all the time. It’s interesting how the nights are structured around the three partners. Larry is straightforward, well, as straightforward as anyone can really be in this crazy business, it seems. Marcus spoke in Baptist preacher tones no matter what he said whether convincing the friends of I Be Bangin’ to pray for his life or hitting on the dispatcher over the radio, providing a faux-religious aspect to the job that Frank can’t partake in. Tom is the most nihilistic, out looking for fights with little reason and happy to wallow in the blood of the job with little concern for the people he finds. They tend to mirror Frank’s journey in oblique and interesting ways. When he’s at his lowest, he works with Marcus, high on life. When he finally finds meaning, he works with the nihilist, providing him with a necessary contrast.
That third night sees him saving people finally again, but it’s Frank learning to let go that ends up saving himself. He’s been looking in after Mary’s father for the past couple of days, watching him struggle back to life on a respirator, forcing him to breathe. When he becomes lucid enough, he tries to pull the breathing tube out of his mouth, a painful situation as Frank describes. It even gets to the point that Frank hears the man’s voice, begging Frank to let him go. When Frank does manage to trick the sensors and let the man expire, he’s finally able to confront Rose’s ghost who releases him from his guilt.
The power around this movie’s ending is odd and hard for me to explain. There’s beauty and savagery throughout the film, and Frank has to wade through it all looking for any kind of release. By listening to one ghost so he can release himself of another, the relief he feels becomes palpable, especially as he finally finds rest on the shoulder of Mary after his long weekend. That relief that Frank feels is something that I end up sharing.
In terms of the craft, the movie is as manically made and assembled as Cage performs Frank. Speed ramping, fast editing, a plethora of music selections, bright lights from the ambulance, all work together to help demonstrate Frank’s deteriorating mental state. Scorsese has complete control over what he does, so he can ramp up the filmmaking along with Cage, and then bring them both down at the appropriate moments.
This is Scorsese oddest great movie, I think. It often feels like it’s about to fly apart, but there’s always a goal in mind that it’s working towards. It goes towards that goal in different ways, but there’s always movement towards it, and the catharsis at the end is really quite satisfying.